CAIRO – Farmer Saeed Saber’s financial prospects had been worrying in the past. However, a few months ago, his neighbor advised him to discard rice and grow sunflowers instead on his 10-acre farm in central Fayum province, 116 kilometers (72 miles) south. west of the capital Cairo.
Almost 2.5 months after sowing the first sunflower seeds, Saber’s economic fortunes are changing rapidly.
“Sunflowers change my life and the life of all the farmers who cultivate this crop,” Saber told Al-Monitor. “Flowers make a lot of money.”
Sunflower cultivation is changing the fate of Fayum farmers, bringing hope to the town’s agricultural sector and creating jobs for thousands of farm workers who were on the verge of giving up farming altogether.
The plant is lucrative to grow and takes much less effort to grow than other crops. It provides guaranteed income to farmers and landowners in Fayoum.
An acre of farmland produces about 2 tons of sunflowers and it takes about 80 days for flowers to grow and mature.
Farmers in Fayoum can grow sunflowers twice a year between May and August, thanks to good weather conditions at this time of year.
Shortly after harvesting the sunflowers, the farmers hand the crop over to the government and the private sector, eagerly awaiting to pick up the produce.
“Customers are always ready to buy the farmers’ products,” Rabie Abdel Gelil, head of agriculture at Fayoum, told Al-Monitor. “Farmers are also competing to increase the productivity of their fields.
At the same time, Egypt is working to increase its vegetable oil production in the hope of lowering the sky-high import bill for cooking oil.
The populated country consumes around 2.6 million tonnes of vegetable oils per year, while it produces only 500,000 tonnes.
This forces Cairo to pay billions of dollars for imports each year, putting additional pressure on the ailing national budget.
Vegetable oils are among the country’s main import products, along with corn, wheat and cotton.
To increase the production of cooking oils, the agricultural authorities in Cairo are encouraging the cultivation of oilseeds.
“We are now focusing on oilseed crops in light of national plans to reduce the gap between oil production and consumption,” Alaa Azouz, head of the guidance section at the ministry of oil, told Al-Monitor. Agriculture. “Reducing imports will save a lot of foreign currency.”
Sunflowers are now at the heart of this dynamic and Fayoum takes center stage.
The province is emerging as the hub of sunflower cultivation in Egypt and farmers like Saber are the small details of the big picture in this regard. In fact, these farmers are profiting from the national urge to increase oil production.
This year, Saber’s farm produced 20 tonnes of sunflowers. Government-affiliated companies buy 1 tonne for 8,500 Egyptian pounds (approximately $ 541). This means that Saber will end up making $ 10,800 after selling the produce, a fortune for a farmer like him.
The farmers of Fayoum use the income they derive from sunflower cultivation to improve their living conditions and those of those around them.
“The income I earn from selling the product helps me and other farmers to make ends meet,” Saber said. “The same income changes the lives of farmers for the better.”
Now a hub for sunflower cultivation in Egypt, Fayoum has been the center of illegal immigration from the country to Europe for many years.
The city sent its young people on precarious journeys across the Mediterranean en route to Europe. Some of them managed to reach the European coasts, in particular those of Italy; others died while traveling.
The deep marks of these waves of immigration are strongly evident in the urban parts of the city. Some of the buildings in the province are influenced by Italian architecture. Most of the shops in the central part are named after Italian cities, such as Rome, Milan and Naples.
There is a surprising urban activity in Fayoum, which feeds on the money sent home by the thousands of inhabitants living in Europe. Sunflower cultivation will potentially compete with immigration as a source of income for the city and its inhabitants.
About 1,000 acres of farmland are cultivated with sunflowers in Fayum this year, up from 25 acres last year.
Behind this zeal for sunflower cultivation lies a vast array of factors, including the Cairo government’s support for farmers like Saber.
The government has introduced “contract farming” for sunflower cultivation, whereby the agriculture ministry or the private sector signs contracts with sunflower growers to purchase their product, even before it matures.
During the agricultural process, farmers receive all types of support for this process, including seeds, fertilizers and technical advice.
Abdel Galil has been at the center of the application of this contract farming system for some time now. Known as “the king of the sunflower” in the province, he travels from farm to farm to advise farmers on best sunflower growing practices.
He said there was great enthusiasm for the cultivation of sunflowers in Fayum.
“Some of the farmers who don’t grow sunflowers just want to copy the experience of those who grow them,” Abdel Galil said. “The high economic returns from growing sunflowers make people enthusiastic about them. “
He and his fellow agriculture ministry officials hope to quadruple the amount of farmland cultivated with sunflowers by next year.
Egypt also hopes to increase the agricultural land cultivated with sunflowers to 100,000 acres, from less than 15% of that space currently.
This increase in agricultural land cultivated with cultivation is necessary for the national production of vegetable oil to meet the growing consumption needs.
However, Egypt is also relying on other crops to increase vegetable oil production, especially soybeans. This year, Egypt is cultivating 250,000 acres of its farmland with soybeans.
The fields of sunflowers of Fayoum offer a picturesque and paradisiacal setting to the houses, alleys and roads of the city. Large factories cover large areas in parts of the city, turning into an attraction in its own right.
Fayoum is known for a long list of attractions, including Wadi El Rayan, Amenemhet III pyramid, and Qasr Qaroun temple, and now adds sunflower fields to that list.
Saber now employs more people on his farm and plans to expand.
“Sunflowers are lucrative for farmers to grow,” Saber said. “That’s why I expect more farmers to grow them in the near future.”